Fr. Sujeewa Angelo Pathirana SJ, our Jesuit Provincial of Sri Lanka, was with us in early December. On his return from Rome, Germany, and Switzerland, he visited our own scholastics in Hekima University College in Nairobi and AOR Province activities in Nairobi. On the 30th of November, Fr. Provincial reached Kampala accompanied by Fr. William O’Neill SJ (Bill) from the JRS International Office. Fr. Bill was my great companion for three years in JRS Kakuma, Kenya. Currently Bill is entrusted with a mission by JRS for animating JRS staff on “Mission and Identity of JRS”.

On the 1st of December, both travelled to Adjumani. Before leaving Kampala, Fr. Provincial had a courtesy call on Christina Zetlmeisl, the Country Director of JRS. In Nairobi he likewise paid a visit to Andre Atsu, the Regional Director of JRS East Africa.

I travelled halfway from Adjumani to welcome them in Kabalega. What an enthusiasm to welcome my former companion and my own Provincial, the First Sri Lankan Jesuit Provincial to visit his man on the margins in northern Uganda with the South Sudanese refugees! On our way to Adjumani, they experienced warm hospitality of the Kabrini Sisters in Dzaipi Parish, with a delicious cake and Italian coffee. JRS and the Kabrini Sisters are collaborating on livelihood programs for women.

Fr. Provincial immediately began his immersion in the life of accompaniment with our refugee brothers and sisters despite his strenuous travels. On the 2nd of December (Saturday), he baptized 14 infants. It was a very colourful event in Holy Rosary Chapel in Boroli. The Christian community welcomed visitors one kilometre ahead with their traditional dancing with drums. After baptism, he interacted with the community leaders and youth. Fr. Provincial joined the traditional dancing of the Lotuko and Madi tribes.

In the evening, we had a visit to the Great River Nile. He crossed the Nile with great enthusiasm. I was bit worried for if the ferry capsized, we would not die of drowning in this deep river but by the attack of the crocodiles and hippos. Fr. Provincial might have gone into the annals, as the First Jesuit Provincial who was martyred by the crocodiles!

On the 3rd of December, on the feast of St. Francis Xavier, Fr. Provincial and Fr. Bill officiated the Sunday Eucharist with our refugee friends, a combination of three communities, from Madi and Dinka. The youth and the leaders organized a beautiful program with traditional dancing and singing by the children. Fr. Provincial gave an inspiring message of Hope. He then distributed the certificates to the youth leaders who participated in the residential leadership program a week before and the blackboards for the communities sponsored by JRS.

Before the final blessing of the mass, Fr. Provincial blessed the congregation with the relics of Sts. Ignatius and Francis Xavier which he carried with him from Rome. A great experience for our people, a blessing on the feast of St. Francis Xavier. The children had sweet cakes (Mandazi) as there were more than 350 children. Soon after mass, although it was hot and tiring, the Provincial took time to encounter the leaders and youth. One of his regular questions to the leaders and youth was, “What is the impact JRS has made in this year through Fr. Lasantha as the pastoral coordinator as JRS who was mandated by the Bishop of Arua to care for these settlements in 2023 January?” (Guess the answers).

After the lengthy discussion we had a traditional lunch of the South Sudanese prepared by the women folk. Late in the evening of the day, Fr. Provincial  visited the Parish Priest and other priests from Apostles of Jesus in the Adjumani Host parish.

The next day, Fr. Provincial celebrated mass with the 28 JRS sponsored catechists in their last training workshop. He encouraged them to become another “Francis Xavier as lay persons in evangelization of these neglected people”. Repeatedly Fr. Provincial emphasised, “You are the leaders and there is great potential for brining the message of Jesus to these children and youth which I have witnessed during these days”.

After Mass, Fr. Bill continued the session on Catholic Social Teaching with the catechists and Fr. Provincial met Agnes Asiime, the Project Director of JRS Adjumani and staff and had a field visit to other JRS works.

In the morning of 5th of December, we travelled together to Kampala. In the same evening, both of us joined Nathan and Jyothi Varaprasatham for a Sri Lankan dinner in Kampala. They hail from  Akkaraipaththu. He was a banker and good friend of the Jesuits in Batticaloa migrated in Uganda due to ethnic violence.

On the next day, I accompanied Fr. Provincial to Entebbe International Airport for his travel back to Sri Lanka.

The second major event was the ongoing catechism for the youth, preparing them for the Sacraments of holy communion and the Sacrament of Confirmation. There are about 300 youth from our six communities in need of methodical preparation as there was no priest for seven years. We have organized biweekly classes supported by Br. Philip who is my assistant.

The Ceremony of awarding the certificates for the 28 catechists who participated the yearlong workshops on the Sacraments, Sacred Liturgy, Sacred Scriptures, Spirituality & Pedagogy of  the  Catechists and of Basic Counselling Skills was held on the 16th of December. Msgr. Felix Drani of the Missionaries of Africa, the current Vicar of the Vicariate for Migrants and Refugees of the Diocese of Arua, was the chief guest.

The Project Director of JRS Adjumani and Fr. Bill graced the occasion. The program ended with a grand and delicious lunch at Aragan Hotel. They all enjoyed the ceremony but left with sadness for the ending of JRS’ regular animation. The catechists highly appreciated the program and the facilitation. “Yes, it was a demanding, hard, and strenuous program but made us disciplined, focused and motivated for the Mission” –these were their sentiments. That was the third event.

The final grace-filled moment was the simple but meaningful Christmas celebrations in the settlements. Decorating their small chapels made of mud, cleaning the compounds, applying mud on the floor and infant baptisms marked preparations. Frs. Bill and Harry a Jesuit from Karnataka Province and currently involved in the Tertianship program in Lebanon gave a huge support for the Masses. It was a touching experience to see the eagerness of our refugee friends to celebrate with all what they have, nicely washed old dresses, well-polished old shoes, coloured hair dresses and big bows of the ladies. They are very poor but not destitute because they love to celebrate, especially the children.

God is with us especially among these our refugee brothers and sisters, and that is the reason that they could sing the GLORIA at every mass with such eagerness and full of energy to THANK & PRAISE God.